- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

One of the election's biggest surprises is the support voters gave to candidates who defended President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security.

Senior White House officials, including Bush chief political strategist Karl Rove, have been poring over the election returns race by race to find out how this issue played with voters. Their finding: Mr. Bush's reform plan proved to be much more popular than even they expected. It withstood the Democrats' fiercest campaign attacks, and that candidates who defended it fared better than those who did not.

Contrary to some tilted stories in The Washington Post, which reported that Republican candidates were running away from Mr. Bush's plan, most did not shy away from the administration's plans to create personal Social Security investment accounts. Consider these Senate races: In North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole aggressively defended the idea and won big. When she was attacked on it, she held up a plain sheet of paper and said this was the Democrats' plan to fix Social Security and keep it solvent.

Mrs. Dole's blank-paper offensive was devastating, driving home the point that the Democrats have no plan to save Social Security, only demagogic attacks. She rolled over her opponent Erskine Bowles.

In New Hampshire, John Sununu similarly took the issue head on. "He was extremely forthright on personal Social Security accounts and won by a strong margin," said a White House adviser.

In Minnesota, former Democrat Norm Coleman did not shrink from voluntarily letting younger workers invest a small part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bond funds. Mr. Coleman was also pounded by the Democrats on this issue more than any other, yet he won in a heavily Democratic state against a Minnesota political icon, Walter Mondale.

In South Carolina, Lindsey Graham didn't flinch either. Armed with polls showing younger workers liked the idea, Mr. Graham backed the Bush plan to the hilt and will be a sure vote for it.

The White House's postelection analysis, sitting on Mr. Rove's desk, shows that the Republican candidates who boldly stood up for personal accounts were the ones who "did best of all" in the elections.

A white paper demonstrating the idea's political popularity in the elections is now being circulated among lawmakers.

Surprisingly, despite tens of millions of dollars spent on Democratic TV ads bashing the Bush reform plan, polls showed support for his proposal growing in the final months of the election. A Gallup Poll showed that 52 percent of voters were for it in September, but that number jumped to 57 percent a week before the election.

"The rate of return on demonizing Social Security personal accounts is negative," said an administration official I interviewed. "The do-nothing option is not credible. This is really exciting news: The public is rejecting the Democrats' view that the plan doesn't need fixing.

"It shows the power of an idea. The conventional wisdom that you do not need to change Social Security has just been destroyed," he said.

But the White House has not yet decided whether it wants to spend its political capital on the reform plan next year.

The administration's position on the issue right now is that it remains a top priority. Mr. Bush wants to work with Congress on devising a bipartisan plan that can pass. He wants to "raise the visibility of this issue" and begin a deeper discussion of it on Capitol Hill.

But the unanswered question in the president's inner circle is: When? White House insiders tell me Mr. Rove and economic adviser Larry Lindsey want to move on this next year. But others, including chief of staff Andrew Card and the president's legislative lobbyist Nick Calio, want to delay action on it possibly until a second term.

The president will already have a lot on his agenda when the new Congress opens for business in January. There will likely be a war in Iraq, the ongoing war on terrorism, and a tax-cutting economic stimulus that will be pivotal to his re-election campaign.

There is a middle way: Ask Congress to begin holding hearings on his proposal and on competing plans to get the debate started and perhaps to lay down the broad outlines of actual draft legislation. A bipartisan plan by Reps. Charles Stenholm, Texas Democrat, and Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, is already picking up some support.

This will move Congress to the next step in the reform process, allow competing plans to build support, force Democrats to enter the debate in a more serious way, and further engage the public in the larger dialogue.

Mr. Bush's plan may not get to the point of floor action and, then again, it might. Either way, the legislative process will have begun. This is an idea that is only going to attract more and more worker support. It's time to get the ball rolling.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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